More than a quarter of the way into the season, the Nashville Predators might be emerging as true contenders in the Western Conference.
The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, are still seeking their first win over such a foe.
The Central Division leaders will try to complete a three-game sweep of the Pacific stragglers Thursday night in Nashville, where the Oilers’ most recent stretch of struggles began more than two weeks ago.
After Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout win over Los Angeles, the Predators (14-5-2) are 8-1-1 at home with four straight victories, and another over the Oilers (6-14-2) would give them their top home streak since taking six straight from Jan. 7-Feb. 4, 2012. They’re also 5-1-1 against the Pacific Division.
"It’s been a good start, but at the same time to stay at the top of the league it’s probably the hardest thing, and everybody who comes here or any team we’re going to face, they want to get a piece of us," goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "You have to be ready for it. But it’s been good. All the changes we’ve made … obviously you got the record. It’s easy to say that it’s been working."
Craig Smith had a goal and an assist against the Kings and scored twice in the first meeting with Edmonton on Oct. 29.
What hasn’t been working so well is the power play. Nashville turned in a second straight 0-for-4 night against the Kings, and its 13.8 percent season mark ranks near the bottom of the league. Its penalty kill has also struggled with a 75.9 percent mark, though it has killed off 15 of 17 over the last nine games.
At five-on-five, however, the Predators have been the best team in the league with a 1.68 goals-for-to-against ratio.
Plenty of that has to do with the emergence of rookie Filip Forsberg and the additions of James Neal and Mike Ribeiro in first-year coach Peter Laviolette’s overhaul of the offense.
Forsberg has cooled off without a point in the last three games, but still leads the team and all rookies with 22. His plus-18 rating leads the league.
Now Nashville is set to get a 20-goal scorer back in the lineup. Center Mike Fisher, who ruptured his Achilles tendon this summer and had surgery July 3, was activated Thursday and is expected to make his season debut on a line with Derek Roy and Olli Jokinen.
Defensively, the Predators have limited opponents to 2.10 goals per game, which is among the league leaders. Rinne has been in goal for each of Nashville’s wins – he’s tied for the league lead – and has a 1.97 goals-against average that’s among the best in hockey.
Two of those victories have come against the Oilers, whose seven-game losing streak – their longest since going 0-8-3 from March 8-31, 2011 – started with a 3-2 loss in Nashville on Nov. 11. Forsberg had the game-winning goal and an assist.
More recently, the Oilers fell 3-2 in Dallas on Tuesday and are now 0-11-1 against the West. Even so, Jordan Eberle thinks the problems are more correctable than in years past.
"We were over-skating the puck and cheating, and that’s not how you win games," Eberle told the team’s official website. "We’re beating ourselves. … Last year teams were beating us, this year we’re beating ourselves."
Eberle has nine points on a five-game streak against the Predators.
In goal, Viktor Fasth gave starter Ben Scrivens a night off after allowing five goals in each of his last two starts. Scrivens is 0-6-1 with a 3.88 GAA in his last eight games.
The Oilers are allowing 3.45 goals per game and their goaltenders’ .885 save percentage is easily the worst in hockey.
Scrivens is 1-3-0 with a 2.39 GAA in five games against Edmonton. Rinne is 4-2-0 with a 2.25 GAA over the past three seasons against Edmonton.